North's Swine Flu Reporting Challenged

Just days after the latest tragic death from swine flu in the North, the Stormont Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey has responded to criticism over the revised system of weekly reporting of swine flu.

He said that including such deaths in the official weekly bulletin "was the right and appropriate step to take".

The Assembly's Health Committee had said the Department of Health's new policy of confirming swine flu deaths once a week was wrong.

After the department said it was unable to confirm reports that a child with the virus had died last Thursday, Chairman Jim Wells said he would be asking Health Minister Michael McGimpsey to reverse the decision.

In response, the Minister said the move to weekly reporting of swine flu deaths was discussed as part of a media briefing led by Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride last week.

Mr McGimpsey said: "As Health Minister, my first priority is to protect the public and patients and in particular, to respect the privacy of families who have lost a loved one.

"I also must ensure that key public health messages regarding swine flu and the steps we are taking to deal with the pandemic are publicised widely and in a timely way," he explained.

"Our policy has always been to be open and transparent in relation to reporting emerging issues about swine flu.

"Up until last week, this included publicising swine flu-related deaths as soon as possible.

"This policy is no longer sustainable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we know that for those families who have just suffered the death of a relative, to then be asked to release personal information for publication is very intrusive and deeply upsetting.

"Secondly it has become clear that the vast majority of families do not wish to have any details released and only want to grieve in peace," he continued.

"Every death is a tragedy and behind every death is a family who is suffering. We must never forget that and we must respect their wishes.

"That is why I have been so disturbed to hear reports that, even though it has been quite clearly stated that these families have requested privacy, attempts have been made by the media to contact them.

"It is just not acceptable for anyone to cause further distress to a grieving family.

"We must remember that swine flu is circulating widely in the community. Sadly, we will have more deaths and more people will become seriously ill," the Stormont Minister continued.

"Whilst we have moved to weekly reporting of swine flu-related deaths, there will be occasions when it is necessary to report a death.

"For example, if there is urgent action which the Department or Public Health Agency needs to take or if there is a public health issue which needs to be addressed," he said, noting that it is important that "we all work together to ensure that these messages are reported appropriately and that we do not take any actions which undermine public confidence".

"The Chief Medical Officer will continue to hold weekly briefings to ensure that the media have every opportunity to inform themselves about the pandemic.

"Similarly, I will take every step possible to ensure that the Executive, the Assembly and the Health Committee also receive regular briefings," Mr McGimpsey concluded.

See: 'Ninth' Swine Flu Tragedy Revealed


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